Critical reading

Becoming a critical reader

In order to read effectively and efficiently –and truly learn from what you’re reading– you must be analytical and strategic. College students struggle with “reading comprehension” because at this level ideas are more complex, readings are more dense, and the main goal is no longer to simply memorize facts. You are required to understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate information. In other words, you need to develop and apply critical thinking skills.

Simply defined, critical thinking is the mental process of reflecting on and evaluating information in order to solve a problem or make a decision. When you are asked to read critically, you must engage with the text by using multiple levels of thinking. We have previously discussed some of those levels when we learned about different types of questions during our unit on preparing for exams. But let’s briefly revisit those ideas.

I truly hope some of you might still remember an earlier class concept called Bloom’s taxonomy. If not, let’s refresh. Bloom’s taxonomy is a very well known classification of learning objectives. Every time you read a learning objective on a lesson, most likely it was created based on Bloom’s taxonomy. The basic premise of this classification is that in order to achieve higher learning you need to pass through the following levels of the cognitive domain (typically represented as a pyramid):

Bloom’s Taxonomy
    • Can you recall or remember the information?
    • Common verbs: define, duplicate, list, memorize, recall, repeat, reproduce, state
    • Can you explain ideas or concepts?
    • Common verbs: classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognize, report, select, translate, paraphrase
    • Can you use the information in a new way?
    • Common verbs: choose, demonstrate, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, schedule, sketch, solve, use, dramatize
    • Can you distinguish between different parts?
    • Common verbs: appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, examine, experiment, question, test
    • Can you justify a stand or decision?
    • Common verbs: argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate
    • Can you create a new product or point of view?
    • Common verbs: assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write

Reading strategically

Reading could be daunting in some cases –boring, some of you might say. But if you approach it strategically it could be extremely enlightening and rewarding.

The following ideas should help you improve your reading skills and increase your comprehension levels. While most of them are related to reading traditional college textbooks, the basic principles are applicable and adaptable to a large number of reading materials. You don’t need to follow them in the particular order provided here. Adapt each step to the specific type of reading you are trying to complete.

  1. Start with the course’s Syllabus:
    • Make sure you understand the main learning goals and objectives of the course. This will provide you the proper context for most of your readings.
    • Identify the key concepts and ideas that will be discussed throughout the semester. Every week you must review the syllabus (and/or course calendar) to identify main topics for that week and possible connections between prior and future topics.
  2. Go to the table of content of your textbook:
    • Identify the organizational structure (compare with the syllabus)
    • Look for primary topics and secondary topics
    • Identify content and context (each lesson/content belongs to a primary context)
    • When available, follow the chapter’s outline to help you build a structure
    • Convert primary and secondary topics into questions
    • Divide the chapter in smaller chunks to study over multiple days
  3. Next, go to the first page of the chapter and start looking at the learning objectives if available. Sometimes, learning objectives are spread-out through multiple pages. Convert the learning objectives into questions:
    • Start with What, When, Where, Who, WHY and HOW. These questions will serve as a roadmap for your reading. Don’t expect to create a perfect “study-guide”.
    • Don’t assume each objective is a single question. A single learning objective could be the source of multiple questions. You’ll get better at this the more you practice and the more you think critically. It’s OK to challenge and question what you read. The following article provides additional ideas on How to ask questions that prompt critical thinking.
  4. Before you start reading, browse the entire chapter or article and look for headings, sub-headings, tables, graphics, pictures, or any other highlighted content. Create additional questions from them and/or identify questions already answered by them.
  5. After (a) browsing the chapter/article, (b) identifying primary and secondary topics, and (c) writing your questions, then go to the end of the chapter. If there’s a summary or recap section, read it first.
  6. Now you are ready to start reading with the real purpose of achieving a deep learning experience.

For ideas on how to implement critical thinking through your reading process, watch this video from the Snap Language Youtube channel:

Using a pre-defined reading system

The course textbook provides three examples of reading systems that are easy to follow and implement. You could try them independently or you could develop your own system using steps from each of them based on the particular needs of your courses.


  • Preview
    • read intro, summary
    • glance at headings, formatted text, tables
  • Read actively (10-page or 30-minute chunks)
    • reflect on what you’re reading
    • highlight
    • take notes
    • write questions
    • write summaries in margins
  • Review (every 10 pp/30 min; at end of chapter)
    • test self on main points
    • answer questions


  • Survey (similar to the first step in P2R)
  • Question (one section at a time)
    • turn each heading into a question
  • Read (one section at a time)
    • read the material related to each heading, trying to answer the question you posed
  • Recite (one section at a time)
    • state answer in your own words
    • highlight answers and/or create outline of answers
  • Review (at end of chapter)
    • review your outline
    • self-test your recall of each section


  • Survey (same as before)
  • Read (one section at a time)
    • write down the heading on a sheet of paper
    • read the section
  • Underline (one section at a time)
    • after you’ve read the section, underline or highlight important points
  • Note-taking (one section at a time)
    • write highlighted content in your own words
  • Review (at end of chapter)
    • review your notes
    • self-test your recall of each section
    • create and answer questions

For a quick take on active reading strategies, here’s another video from the College Info Geek, Thomas Frank:

Here’s a list of some general reading tips provided by the textbook (Van Blerkom, page 181):

  • read chapter before lecture
  • build prior knowledge
  • divide chapter in readable chunks
  • preview chapter before reading
  • use a reading system
  • mart text (but never during first reading)
  • monitor comprehension
  • review what you read
  • prompt your memory
Reading tips: read chapter before lecture, build prior knowledge, divide chapter in readable chunks, preview chapter before reading, use a reading system, mart text, monitor comprehension, review what you read, and prompt your memory.
Image of reading tips (Van Blerkom, page 181)